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Q&A: Will the U.S. Ever Catch Up With the Skilled Workforce Gap?

It's not just about finding new people.

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The manufacturing industry recently had approximately 623,000 job openings, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure is less than the 1 million available in April 2022, but Deloitte Insights estimates that U.S. manufacturing could see 2.1 million unfilled jobs by the end of the decade.

This growing number could be assisted by a digital transformation and by the current manufacturing workforce not possessing the necessary skills to keep pace.

A manufacturing institute called Manufacturing x Digital (MxD) is looking to combat this trend by equipping U.S. factories with digital tools, cybersecurity and workforce expertise. The Department of Defense-sponsored company has invested $120 million on 85 projects in 35 states to address the skilled workforce gap.

MxD CEO Berardino Baratta elaborated on the company's efforts in a recent interview with IEN.

Nolan Beilstein: Will the U.S. ever catch up with the skilled workforce gap? 

Berardino BarattaThis issue is not confined to finding new workers to fill vacancies: 50% of the people in the manufacturing workforce – in any workforce – will have to be upskilled over the next decade to keep doing the same job they’re doing now.

MxD Learn is focused on addressing this growing gap actively by collaborating with partners including academia, government, industry and local communities.

Addressing this workforce gap by reaching out to new communities begins with changing the image of manufacturing. Today’s facilities are cutting-edge, high-tech workplaces that are a far cry from the “dark, dirty and dangerous” reputation of years past.

When we show high school students around the factory floor at our Chicago headquarters, they are amazed at what a manufacturing job really is. Students light up when seeing the possibility of a career in an innovative sector that allows them to use cutting-edge technology and problem-solving skills.

Better yet, if we can show future workers and their families and communities that you can do this while also building a career in a sector with salaries that are almost 10% higher than the national average, then we have an opportunity to close that gap.

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NB: What skills will the manufacturing workforce need in the next decade?

BB: According to the World Economic Forum, 54% of all employees will need to be upskilled by 2025 to do their current jobs and prepare for the increase in automation, AI and other digital technologies. The manufacturing workforce will need the technological skills to work with robotics and automation along with digital literacy skills to understand and use the tools and software to become proficient in advanced manufacturing processes.

And as factories increasingly use these new technologies, they become more vulnerable to cyber threats, so we will of course need workers who are prepared to protect from and respond to cyber-attacks.

NB: How is MxD addressing the skilled workforce gap in manufacturing?

BB: We bring the private sector, government and academia into a conversation to identify and collaborate on a variety of issues holding U.S. manufacturing back.

MxD has strategically invested in a portfolio of nearly 170 research, development and demonstration projects to drive technology advancement. But as we know, technology without a competent workforce to operate it is useless – filling the workforce gap is a critical element of success.

MxD Learn’s two hiring guides – a Digital Jobs Taxonomy and a Cybersecurity Hiring Guide – are examples of this. The hiring guides offered groundbreaking analysis and outline more than 400 roles, career pathways and success profiles within manufacturing and cybersecurity. Created in partnership with Manpower Group and dozens of industry partners, the hiring guides focus on the future of work in manufacturing and outline how these roles lead to high-quality jobs with vast opportunities for career progression and advancement.

Many of these roles are not yet seen in mainstream manufacturing, with titles like “collaborative robotics technician” and “predictive maintenance systems specialist,” but these will soon become commonplace as the sector progresses.

NB: What is MxD’s CAPITAL program and what are the outcomes you hope to achieve with it?

BB: Our Curriculum and Pathways Integrating Technology and Learning (CAPITAL) skill development program will both properly prepare the future workforce and bring current workers up to speed. The program is supported by $6.2 million in federal funding and is designed to provide resources directly aimed at meeting current and emerging workforce needs, which include the projected more than 2 million unfilled jobs in the manufacturing sector by the end of this decade.

The program will develop certification-based curriculum development and training programs and provide learning opportunities for workers to grow in meaningful careers.  

NB: What are some examples of MxD’s successful project investments that helped modernize supply chains and support small and medium manufacturers?

BB: Enabling Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility Through Predictive Analytics: This project developed, validated and scaled powerful predictive analytics methods to provide visibility into real‐time part flow information across large supply chain networks. This led to more than 50% better prediction of late supplier part deliveries for OEMs leading to tens of millions of dollars of savings in inventory annually and a corresponding increase in revenue through better end-customer satisfaction.

MxD securing DoD Supply Chain through Rolls-Royce Supplier Cyber Program: This program enhanced the cyber resilience of Rolls-Royce’s supplier network by reaching 800-plus of their suppliers with awareness/education content, Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) assessments through the MxD Cyber Marketplace and hands-on workshops and tabletops to enhance cyber-preparedness.

Supply Chain Risk Alert 2 (SCRA2): SCRA2 provides a middleware platform based on commercial, off-the-shelf software for supply chain mapping, which implements a flexible platform architecture for secure data exchange, connects multiple public and private data sources with a supply chain map and leverages artificial intelligence and advanced analytics to predict future supply chain risks. The platform enables data-informed decisions and unique insights including end-to-end visualization of the multi-tier supply chain and analysis of critical lanes via demand propagation. 

Digital Transformation Toolkit for SMMs – Accelerating Adoption of Digital Manufacturing: U.S. small and medium-sized manufacturers are at a competitive disadvantage relative to other domestic and international manufacturers that are implementing high value technologies. This project creates actionable resources to help SMMs get started in digital manufacturing through implementing detailed case studies at SMM testbeds.

NB: What are the challenges and opportunities you see for the U.S. manufacturing sector in the 21st century?

BB: The manufacturing sector has been the No. 1 targeted industry for cyber-attacks for the past two years, surpassing all other industries including banking and retail. Despite the U.S. being home to some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated manufacturers, the American manufacturing sector gets very small, very quickly.

This has a corresponding effect on the ability of these companies to remain cyber secure. A 20-person operation, for example, often lacks an IT team, nor do they have a chief information officer or chief information security officer. Their equipment often runs on unpatched firmware or relies on outdated security software and is therefore at greater risk of cyber-attacks.

As the supply chain modernizes and shares more design and manufacturing assets digitally, we must secure these small manufacturers to protect the entire supply chain from cyber-attacks, including cyber espionage.

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